WEST VALLEY CITY — Anyone who knows me knows that I love classic Broadway musicals. The Pajama Game, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, and My Fair Lady (amongst others) were all on regular rotation on the hi-fi when I was growing up. (Look it up, kids.) These shows became familiar and beloved and have stayed with me all these years. As I’ve gotten older, I go back to these shows and I’m always thrilled when a theater company does justice (in my mind) to my dear friends. West Valley City Arts Council’s production of Damn Yankees is one of the ones that definitely does this musical justice.
Damn Yankees has always been one of my favorite shows. The plot of Damn Yankees is easily accessible via any internet search engine. It is a fun twist on the Faust/Devil and Daniel Webster stories. It is also based on the novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by Douglas Wallop. In its initial Broadway run, it was most noted for the choreography of Bob Fosse. In West Valley, director Julie Waite has done a great job of bringing this musical to life. The play is presented in the outdoor amphitheater at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. There is something about summer and outdoor theater that just adds an extra bit of charm to whatever it is you see. The night we went, we had a particularly intent magpie who felt his voice needed to be included. Gotta love live theater!
A production of Damn Yankees requires three things to be a real hit: three strong leads (Mr. Applegate, Lola, and Joe Hardy), a strong chorus, and skilled dancers. This production came very close on all those points. The leads were mostly very strong. Austin Smith as Joe Hardy was excellent. He is tall, good-looking, and has a very strong voice. He was a real success as Joe Hardy and sold it, especially in his songs “Goodbye Old Girl” and “A Man Doesn’t Know.” There wasn’t a time when his characterization slipped or felt flat. He is certainly someone to watch out for in future productions.
Still quite good, but not as successful, were Leah Hassett as Lola and Johnny Hebda as Mr. Applegate. Ms. Hassett is a very talented dancer and has a very nice voice. She was very good in her big numbers, “A Little Brains, a Little Talent” and “Whatever Lola Wants.” She also did a great job in her duet with Mr. Smith, “Two Lost Souls.” But she just wasn’t soldering enough for Lola. She didn’t sell that she is “the best homewrecker on [Applegate’s] staff.” She was a little too sweet and innocent to be a homewrecker. Mr. Hebda oozed charm and oily badness as Applegate, but his one big number in the show, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” was too reserved. If there is one time for over the top acting, this is it. It just felt too safe, and his voice, while nice, was not very strong. The diction was a bit muddied, so the great jokes in that song fell a little flat. He acted the part of Applegate well, but lost points in the singing.
The chorus was uniformly very good. “Heart,” sung by the Senators’ ball players, was fantastic, as was “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.” Director Waite also gave the chorus lots of fun business to do in the background. It didn’t detract from the main action, but added a laugh here and there if you happened to catch it. The choreography by Michael Hernandez seemed like an attempt to recreate the Fosse choreography from the original and the 1958 movie. At times is worked, but at other times it did not. The aforementioned “Shoeless Joe…” number was very good, as was “The Game.”
The dancing very strong and well rehearsed. The movement in “Whatever Lola Wants” almost seemed like a gymnastics routine, instead of a seduction dance. In “Two Lost Souls,” the choreography started out well. But, at one point, it turned into a sort of “dime a dance” circle around Joe Hardy, which included various cat-calls from both the men and the women. These cat-calls added a few cringe-worthy moments to the song. However, I realize that they were likely ad-libs, and a few did produce some unintentional laughs from audience members around us.
The lighting and sound from technical director Brandon Felter was a notch above what you usually get at an outdoor venue. There were very few mic problems and the sound was well balanced. The costume design by Amy Allred and Carol Brown was lovely and fitting to the 1950s setting of the musical. The set was a bit amateurish, but it was well designed and made for quick scene changes.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable show with great, strong leads and an excellent chorus. And I have to give kudos to West Valley City Arts Council for their pricing for this show. All tickets are $5, which makes it more than accessible to families. It’s a steal for a show of this quality.